Tag Archives: assessment

Elevating Increased Monitoring and Testing to an Educational Imperative – Does this really make sense?

Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

On Monday this week I gave a talk to a small group of teacher advisors on the pros and cons of integrated skills development in EFL classroom environments near the city of Berlin. The focus was on developing oral skills in primary and secondary schools, more specifically, on fundamental issues related to the transition from primary to secondary EFL classrooms. In this context, I voiced my concerns about the current trend to think about (efficient?) foreign language education in terms of competence- and standards-based measurable outcome in Germany, arguing that this approach is difficult to bring in line with traditional conceptualizations of Bildung (foreign language education as a time-consuming process of self-formation; in the age of globalization, mobility and migration, cultural diversity and hybridity, etc.). This was followed by a lively discussion.  Since we did not have enough time to discuss all this in detail, especially the potential problems associated with conceiving of oral target language proficiency in terms of neatly defined, measurable sub-skills (or so-called competences and levels of oral competence), especially perhaps with regard to primary schools, I would like to add the following:

In my view, improving foreign language education in everyday classroom practice is complex and subject to the interplay of a wide spectrum of interacting factors. By importing and adapting reform strategies and measures that are largely based on values, goals and concepts which (arguably) have been proven successful in business, commerce, finance and industry, complexity may appear to be manageable. However, the price to be paid for injecting market pressure into secondary (primary?) school education, for turning foreign language classrooms into arenas of competition for the best test results, for coating instruction with more and more layers of assessment, for reducing educational ‘quality’ to a limited number of measurable performance indicators, and for conceiving of output or outcome as the linchpin of quality development, may be hefty and unacceptable. In many countries, concerns are continuing to grow that standards- and test-driven compliance pressures on teachers are likely to rise, and that, in consequence, foreign language classroom instruction may increasingly and largely be condensed, redesigned and repackaged toward improving isolated skills performance in standardized tests (see, for instance, Böttcher, Bos, Döbert & Holtappels 2008; Kurtz 2005, O’Day 2008).

Today I stumbled upon two highly interesting, and perhaps, highly controversial  articles (mentioned/written) in the New York Times that I would like to share with you. Please click here and there. :-)


Böttcher, Wolfgang; Bos, Wilfried; Döbert, Hans & Holtappels, Heinz Günter (eds.) (2008). Bildungsmonitoring und Bildungscontrolling in nationaler und internationaler Perspektive. Münster: Waxmann. [Education Monitoring and Control – Viewed from an international perspective; my translation].

Kurtz, Jürgen (2005). „Bildungsstandards als Instrumente der Qualitätsentwicklung im Fremdsprachenunterricht: Towards a Checklist Approach to Foreign Language Learning and Teaching? In: Bausch, Karl-Richard; Burwitz-Melzer; Eva; Königs, Frank G.; Krumm, Hans-Jürgen (eds.). Bildungsstandards auf dem Prüfstand. Arbeitspapiere der 25. Frühjahrskonferenz zur Erforschung des Fremdsprachenunterrichts. Tübingen: Narr, 159-167.

O’Day, Jennifer (2008). “Standards-based reform: promises, pitfalls, and potential lessons from the U.S.” In: Böttcher, Wolfgang; Bos, Wilfried; Döbert, Hans & Holtappels, Heinz Günter (eds.). Bildungsmonitoring und Bildungscontrollingt in nationaler und internationaler Perspektive. Münster: Waxmann, 107-157.


Treacherous Quicksand: Quality Measurement in Foreign Language Education

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

While working on a new publication, I came across the following statement by H.G. Widdowson (1990: 1): “The effectiveness of teaching cannot be equated with its rational accountability.” This made me think again about what good quality management and quality assurance in foreign language learning and teaching – including the (fuzzy) concept of accountability – is all about. To my mind, it is essential to avoid simplistic equations between standardized tests / test scores and teacher / foreign language teaching quality on the one hand, and between individual test results and the outcome of foreign language and intercultural learning on the other. Equations like these are grossly inadequate to address the complex challenge of improving the quality of learning and teaching in foreign language classrooms. Instead of encouraging practitioners to take a fresh look at their teaching (stimulating, for instance, in-service training), I think they rather contribute to fixing the status quo (and a teaching to the test mentality), i.e. to ensuring stagnation.

Foreign language education in the 21st century is more than skills-based instruction (which does not make it easier at all; see my personal view of foreign language education in Germany on this blog). It embraces language (including literature) and culture as a whole, and it is this educational whole which matters. It cannot be captured by standardized (especially discrete-point) testing.

Accountability? “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.“ (William Shakespeare). This leaves many questions open to discussion. What do you personally think about all this?

Widdowson, Henry G. (1990). Aspects of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Teaching Foreign Languages: Mass Production of Standardized Can-Doers?

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Article 26 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN 1948) states: “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups […].” It is evident that narrowing secondary school education down to the demands of the global market, and focussing it increasingly on economic utility and the development of standardized foreign language employability skills is only partially compatible with the humanistic approach to education underlying the UN Declaration.

In my view, “the tendency towards rigid control of schooling by a central authority” (H.H. Stern 1984: 428), which elevates intensive monitoring and meticulous evaluation of learning to the status of an educational imperative is reminiscent of early quality management in industrial mass production at the beginning of the twentieth century. It subtly forces teachers to adopt a ‘checklist-approach to foreign language learning and teaching’ which all too often results in test-oriented rather than learner-oriented instruction. Standardized foreign language education? Stronger accountability? More assessment? More control? Holistic intercultural education in high-pressure contexts? What are we headed for? A ‘Brave New World of Education’? This is one excerpt from Aldous Huxley’s dystopia that worries me:

“It’s curious,” he went on after a little pause, “to read what people in the time of Our Ford used to write about scientific progress. They seemed to have imagined that it could be allowed to go on indefinitely, regardless of everything else. Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate. True, ideas were beginning to change even then. Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness. Mass production demanded the shift. […] Still, in spite of everything, unrestricted scien­tific research was still permitted. People still went on talking about truth and beauty as though they were the sovereign goods. Right up to the time of the Nine Years’ War. That made them change their tune all right. What’s the point of truth or beauty or knowledge when the anthrax bombs are pop­ping all around you? That was when science first began to be controlled […]. People were ready to have even their appe­tites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s very good for happiness.” (c) (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 1932).